Chaucer Story Book - E. M. Tappan

The Friar's Tale

[Illustration] from The Chaucer Story Book by E. M. Tappan

When the friar's turn had come, he told a tale about a certain summoner, whose business it was to summon to the archdeacon's court all those in his jurisdiction who were accused of breaking the laws of the Church. The archdeacon did not always know how much this summoner was getting from the people, for the man would often threaten them without ground or reason, and to get rid of being called before the court they were right glad to fill his purse or make him great feasts at the alehouse.

The Story of the Summoner

Now it came to pass one day that a summoner wanted a little money, so he set out to summon an old widow. As he rode along by the forest, he saw riding before him a gay young yeoman with bright new bow and arrows. He wore a short coat of black and a hat with black fringe.

"Sir," said the summoner, "greeting and good cheer to you."

"Welcome," returned the stranger, "to you and to every good fellow and true. Whither go you under this green shade? Do you ride far to-day?"

"Oh, no," the summoner answered; "I am only going right here to collect a rent for my lord."

"Ah, you are a bailiff, then?"

"Yes, truly," he replied, for he was ashamed to own that he was a summoner.

Then are we both bailiffs," said the yeoman. "I am a stranger in this part of the country, and I shall be glad of your acquaintance, of your brotherhood, too, if so be you are of like wish. If you ever chance to come into my shire, you will find that I have plenty of gold and silver in my chest, and whatever of it you may need shall be your own, I promise you that."

The summoner thanked the stranger heartily. The two men grasped each other's hands and vowed to be sworn brethren to the last day of their lives; and then they rode on, talking pleasantly together.

The summoner was full of chatter, and he was never done with his questioning. "Brother," he asked, "where do you live? Where should I look for you if I would find you some other day?"

The yeoman replied to him smoothly and politely. "Far in the north country," he said, "where I hope, my brother, I shall some time see you. Before we separate, I will tell you the way so carefully that you will never miss my house."

Then the summoner introduced a new subject. "Now, brother," said he, "since you are a bailiff as well as I, I beg you to tell me some trick that will help me to get the most money from my office. No matter whether it is right or wrong, but tell me as a brother how you manage matters."

"Now by my truth, dear brother," replied the other, "I will tell you an honest tale. My lord is stingy and close-fisted, and I have a hard place. Therefore I live by getting just as much from every man as he can be made to give. I get my pay either by trick or by force; but I get it, you may depend upon that."

"That is my way, too," said the summoner. "I take everything I can lay hold of unless it is too heavy or too hot. I could not live in any other way; and there's one thing more, I won't tell of this in confession. We are well met, I am sure; but, dear brother, tell me your name, I pray."

The yeoman smiled a queer little smile. "Brother," said he, "do you really want me to tell you? Then here it is—I am a fiend, and my dwelling-place is hell. I am riding about to gather in whatever I can, for this is all my income. You don't care how you get your money, and neither do I. I would ride to the end of the earth for my prey."

"Ah," said the summoner, "how is this? I certainly thought you were a yeoman. You have a man's form as much as I. Do you have a form when you are at home in hell?"

"No, we have none there," the fiend replied; "but we can take one whenever we choose, or we can make any one think that we have the form of a man or an ape, or an angel for that matter. That is northing wonderful. A common juggler can cheat you, and surely I have more skill than he."

The summoner would have gone on asking question after question, but the fiend gently cut him short. "Hereafter, my dear brother," he said, "you shall come where you will not need to learn of me. Now let us ride on briskly, for you may be sure that I shall stay with you unless you leave me."

"Oh, no," declared the summoner, "that will never come to pass. We have sworn to be brothers, and I will keep my word, even though you were Satan himself. You take all you can get, and I will do the same; and if either of us gets more than the other, then let him share."

"Agreed, by my faith," declared the fiend; and then they rode on together to the edge of the town where the summoner had planned to go. In the road was a cart loaded with hay, and it bade fair to stand in the road for some time to come; for the mud was so deep that, try as they would, the horses could not stir it. The carter beat them and shouted as if he were mad. "Go on, Scot! Get up, Brok! The fiend take you, and the cart and hay, too!"

"Here's somewhat for you," said the summoner softly to the fiend. "Listen, brother, listen! Don't you hear what the carter says? Take it; he has given it all to you, hay and cart and his three good horses."

"No," the fiend responded, "I cannot take that, because he doesn't mean it in earnest. Ask him for yourself, if you doubt me, or else wait a little and you will see."

The carter struck his horses another blow, and they began to pull harder than ever. "Get up!" he cried. "There, we are out of it at last. That was well done, old Gray. God save thee, and bless everything that He ever made!"

"Now, brother," said the fiend, "now, you see, I cannot get anything from this wagon; so let us go on farther."

They passed on through the town. When they came near to the end, the summoner whispered to the fiend, "My brother, an old woman lives in yon small house who would about as soon lose her neck as give up a penny. I will have twelve pence out of her, though, if she goes mad, or I will summon her to our court. I don't know any wrong of her, but no matter. Now watch me, brother; and since you do not seem to know how to get what belongs to you in this country, you can follow my example and learn from me."

The summoner knocked loud at the widow's gate. "Come out," he called, "come out."

"Who is that?" asked the woman. "Ah, God save you, sir, what is your will?"

"I have here," replied the summoner, "a bill requiring you to appear at the archdeacon's court to-morrow morning to answer to certain charges made against you."

"I call God to witness," declared the woman, "that I cannot. I have been sick for a long while, and my side pains me so that I can neither ride nor walk. Sir summoner, may not one appear for me at the court and answer there to whatever thing is charged against me?"

"Yes," replied the summoner; "pay me twelve pence, and I will see to the matter. I shall get small gain from it; my master has the profit, not I. Come, give me the twelve pence, and let me ride on. I can't wait here any longer."

"Twelve pence!" cried the widow. "I've not twelve pence to my name. You know right well that I am poor and old. Have pity on me in my trouble."

"Never," declared the summoner. "May the fiend take me if I let you off, even if it ruins you."

"Alas," she wailed, "God knows I have done nothing wrong."

"Pay the twelve pence," growled the summoner, "or I will carry away your new pan for the debt that you owed me before."

"You say false," she shrieked. "Never in all my life was I summoned to your court till now. May the fiend take you, and my pan too."

When the fiend heard this, he drew nearer. "Good mother," he asked gently, "do you really mean what you are saying?"

"May the fiend take him, pan and all, if he does not repent!", repeated the old woman.

"Repent, indeed!" cried the summoner. "I'll not repent of taking anything from you. I wish I had everything that belongs to you."

"Now, brother," said the fiend, "don't be angry, but you and this pan are mine by right, and this very night you shall go to my dwelling in hell with me"; and with that the fiend caught him and bore him away, body and soul, to the place where folk like him have heritage prepared.